German tenor thrills Met audience in solo recital

MIKE SILVERMAN - For The Associated Press
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In this photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera Jonas Kaufmann performs during his solo recital at the Metropolitan Opera in New York Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)

NEW YORK (AP) — He's already thrilled Metropolitan Opera audiences with his exceptional vocal powers in such large-scale works as Puccini's "Tosca," Bizet's "Carmen" and Wagner's "Die Walkuere."

On Sunday, Jonas Kaufmann brought a far more intimate side of his artistry to the house, offering a solo recital that held a near-capacity crowd spellbound for more than two hours.

In songs by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Henri Duparc and — best of all — Richard Strauss, the German tenor displayed a rare musical sensitivity combined with keen interpretive skills. His outstanding piano accompanist was Helmut Deutsch, more of a partner than merely someone to play the notes.

Kaufmann's voice has a darkish quality that can at first surprise listeners used to brighter tenor sounds. In this recital, that meant he was able to persuasively take on many songs more commonly associated with baritones, like Mahler's haunting "Um Mitternacht" ("At midnight").

But as operagoers know, his upper register is there when he needs it.

All afternoon, Kaufmann — seemingly fully recovered from surgery to remove a node from his chest less than two months ago — summoned thrilling power on high crescendos; with equal ease he floated soft notes of melting beauty. Sometimes he did both in sequence within the same song, as in the conclusion to Strauss' bittersweet "Befreit"(''Liberated").

In Liszt's jaunty "Die drei Zigeuner" ("The Three Gypsies"), he and Deutsch vividly depicted the narrator's encounter with the three free spirits he finds relaxing under a willow tree. In Duparc's ghostly, dreamlike "L'Invitation au Voyage" ("Invitation to the Voyage"), he spun a vocal line of ethereal delicacy while singing, in the text by Baudelaire, of "luxe, calme et volupte"(''luxury, calm and delight").

When the scheduled program was over, the audience brought Kaufmann and Deutsch back out for repeated bows. He responded with a generous five encores, the first four of them more songs by Strauss.

Only for his last did he break the mode for a sentimental send-off with Franz Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("Yours is my heart alone") from the operetta Das Land des Laechelns ("The Land of Smiles.") This song was a favorite of the German tenor Richard Tauber, and has become a staple of performers from Fritz Wunderlich to Mario Lanza, from Placido Domingo to Frank Sinatra.

Kaufmann uttered the final words, "Ich hab dich lieb" (I love you!) on sustained high notes that sounded as fresh as when he began the recital. Only after one more curtain call and a farewell wave from the tenor to the crowd did the frenzied cheers — which had long since turned into a standing ovation — finally subside.

The last opera singer to give a solo piano recital at the Met was Luciano Pavarotti in 1994. Pavarotti, who was then approaching 60, was a beloved figure familiar even to people who never set foot in an opera house.

Kaufmann, who is preparing for a new production of Gounod's "Faust" at the Met, has not yet gained that kind of mass recognition. But, in his early 40s, he is at the height of his powers and, seemingly, able to do just about anything with his voice. Talk of "great singers" can come cheap, but he may indeed prove one for the ages.